Songs of Faith – 1956: Aretha was 14 fucking years old when this album came out. It’s hard to believe that this bellowing, massive, and controlled voice came out of a 14-year-old girl. It seems impossible. What also seems impossible is giving birth to your first child at the age of 12. Ya, hold on to those asses. Aretha’s life is bumpy. This album was recorded at her father’s church at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. Her father was the type of preacher that had a group of nurses follow him around with smelling salts to revive those that fell under God’s spirit. Charisma could be a word for it; I prefer to call him a fucked up showman. Ray Charles labelled this church a “sex circus” cause there were so many orgies hosted there. Yep, true shit. Having an orgy in a church … there’s a special kind of fucked up hell for doing that shit. Back in those days, The Franklin home was a place for musicians like Dinah Washington and Nat King Cole to come chill after their late-night gigs. It was like a private club. Aretha’s father would wake her up late at night so his guests could hear her wonderful voice. He knew the talent she had before she did. This album has been reissued so many times, it also goes by the title The Gospel Soul of Aretha Franklin, Aretha’s Gospel, Precious Lord, You Grow Closer, Never Grow Old, and The First Album. Aretha wouldn’t get signed onto Columbia records for another five years.
I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You – 1967: At 19 years of age, Aretha Franklin married Ted White. Ted was her husband, her manager, and a total fucking dick. Etta James compared Aretha’s relationship to Ted to that of Ike and Tina. Ya, this also includes all the bruises and broken bones that come with these kinds of shitheads. Right from the get go, Ted worked Aretha like a horse. And, despite her best efforts, nothing she could do would break through to the close-minded folks at Columbia or to the public, that is, until she moved over to Atlantic Records. Around this time, Otis Redding was singing a little song with some minor success. He let Aretha sing the little diddy as well. I’m sure neither of them could have imagined what would come of this. The first track off this album is “Respect” written by Otis Redding and performed by Aretha Franklin. The song is already a classic, but to imagine a young Aretha screaming into the mic that she wants respect to her abusive piece of shit husband, even spelling out the word for him, as he stood staring at her behind the recording studio glass, this shit gives me a whole new set of shivers.
Lady Soul – 1968: Good news often comes with bad. Aretha tops the charts with the song “Respect” and the man who wrote the song, Otis Redding, dies. Days after his death, she goes in to record this album. The album shows the highest highs and lowest lows of Aretha, not just vocally, but also emotionally. She belts out “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” a song she considered a love song to God. Then she sings, “Chain of Fools”. It is about a piece of shit man that treats women like links in a chain. “One of these mornings the chain is gonna break. But up until the day I’m gonna take all I can take.” The producer of this album, Jerry Wexler, says Franklin showed up for the final sessions of this album beaten to a fucking pulp by her shithead husband. Before becoming Aretha’s manager, Ted was a pimp. No shit. “Chain of Fools” was pure autobiography. You can hear the push and the pull of this love affair with songs like “Sweet Sweet Baby” and “Good to Me As I Am to You”. Aretha wrote these songs but Ted, being the raging asshat he is, took credit for them. I’m happy to announce that Aretha dropped Ted’s ass in 1969. D-I-V-O-R-C-E, ya shithead.
Spirit In The Dark – 1970: Fresh out of divorce, a year or so after her friend’s death, and a couple years after Martin Luther King’s assassination (she toured with MLK while he was alive and sang at his funeral two years prior). She also felt the need to put restraining orders on her former husband, and king asshat, Ted White. This move made sense, not just because of the abuse. One day, Ted thought Sam Cooke’s brother Charles went to visit Aretha at her home. He decided the best way to deal with this was to shoot Charles in the dick. That’s right, Ted White was one crazy motherfucker. Aretha is carrying her fourth child and is a heavy alcoholic during the recording of this album. Throughout her entire life her spirit has been repressed by her father, husband, or managers. Everyone using her for either her body or her voice. Her race has been suppressed by society. Her gender is suppressed by both. When she closes this album with the song “Why I Sing the Blues” I didn’t feel the need to ask. This dark titled album makes sense with who Aretha is at this time. She is a spirit that has been put into the dark in more ways than one. This is her grieving album. Sure, at this point her voice is already one of the most iconic and recognizable things in the fucking world. But this is the album where she breaks through everything she has gone through and finally becomes her own woman. On the song “The Thrill Is Gone [From Yesterday’s Kiss]” her backup singers sing over a minor chord, “Thank God I’m free at last.” It’s a perfect image of what real freedom looks like. It’s not tears of joy, it’s tears and joy.
Amazing Grace – 1972: After all the years and abuse, Aretha returns to church. This shit went double platinum. It is the biggest selling album of Aretha’s career. It is the highest-selling gospel album of all time. It earned her a Grammy in ’73 for Best Soul Gospel Performance. There was a documentary filmed during the making of the album that has never been released. The producer of the film, Alan Elliott, tried to release this shit back in 2011 but Aretha sued his ass as she didn’t give him permission to screen the footage. She was such a badass. (At some point this film may still be released, and you’d better bet your ass when it does I’ll be sitting in that theatre.) The album was recorded in New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in South Central Los Angeles. Supposedly part of the clapping crowd in the background is Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts. Aretha sings her fucking guts out on this album. She also plays her guts out. Many forget that Aretha had some serious chops and could hit those keys like a monster. Sixteen years after her church album debut, she returns to a church to make a killer fucking album. Her voice on this album, you can hear what makes Aretha Franklin … well, Aretha fucking Franklin.
Soul music is like a garden: if you want to know why it’s so bright and beautiful, if you want to get down into the dirt and figure out what the roots of soul music feeds off of, most of the time the answer is going to be shit. Aretha’s voice is iconic. She’s the queen of soul. She is the first voice I think of when I hear the phrase “heavenly choir”. Today, the world lost one of the greatest musicians and singers it will ever see. To me, she is an example of what makes humanity so interesting and beautiful. All the shit and pain that we go through doesn’t need to define us. In fact, we can use it to make something truly beautiful if we have the courage.
Rest in peace, Aretha.